Moonfleet

From the Chicago Reader (August 30, 2002). — J.R.

Moonfleet-well

Fritz Lang’s only film in CinemaScope (1955, 89 min.) is one of his most neglected features, at least in this country. (In France there’s a deluxe edition on DVD made especially for high school students.) A kind of 18th-century fairy tale about an orphan (Jon Whiteley) in Dorset who’s adopted, after a fashion, by a smuggler (Stewart Granger), this classy MGM production was adapted from a novel by J. Meade Faulkner by Margaret Fitts and Jan Lustig, and its dreamlike sense of wonder is equaled only in Lang’s German pictures. John Houseman produced, and Mikos Rozsa wrote the stirring score; the fine secondary cast includes George Sanders, Joan Greenwood, and Viveca Lindfors. (JR)

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Vinyl

From the Chicago Reader (June 1, 1989). — J.R.

After paying $3,000 for the rights to Anthony Burgess’s novel A Clockwork Orange, Andy Warhol made this very loose adaptation (1965) using direct sound, with such Warhol regulars as Ondine and Edie Sedgwick, Gerard Malanga performing a whip dance, and music by the Velvet Underground. It’s one of Warhol’s very best — and most painterly — films, more interesting for what it does with crowded space than for the S and M. 64 min. (JR)

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Passing Through

From the Chicago Reader (July 1, 1990). — J.R.

One of the rare fiction features about the jazz world made by a black filmmaker — and arguably much more important than Mo’ Better Blues, though it’s rarely shown. This 1977 film by Larry Clark, written by Ted Lange, follows a young saxophonist (Nathaniel Taylor) recently released from prison who tries to deal with the political aspects of his profession with the help of an older musician (Clarence Muse). Original and thoughtful, this is a very special first feature, with a feeling for the music that’s boldly translated into film style. (JR)

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Hope Springs Eternal [The Best Films of 1999]

From the Chicago Reader (January 7, 2000). — J.R.

I find critics’ near unanimity about hits and favorites a bit of a bore, even when I agree with some of their choices. Disputes are far more interesting, because they make artistic and political differences clearer and more meaningful. Perhaps because I’m drawn to cinema that can theoretically change the world — and me — I can’t see much purpose in commemorating movies whose prime aim seems to be to make me forget the world outside the theater. The remake of The Thomas Crown Affair and an evening of channel surfing, no matter how enjoyable either might be, are of roughly equal irrelevance.

Nineteen ninety-nine was a pivotal year in movies, clarifying where a lot of people stood and who they were. This kind of definition was encouraged by the existential stocktaking that came with the end of the millennium — the compiling of more best-film lists than usual (of the 90s, of the century) and more generalized meditating on the state of the art and the medium. (After finishing my own best-of-the-90s list for the last issue of the year, I discovered that all but one of the movies had an interesting trait in common: they hadn’t been reviewed in the New Yorker.… Read more »

En movimiento: Critical Taste versus Criticism

My column for the forthcoming June 2015 issue of Caimán Cuadernos de Cine. — J.R.

lapeaudouce

Although we often collapse the two into a single entity, it’s important to acknowledge that criticism and critical taste are far from identical or interchangeable.  It’s instructive that Godard today considers Truffaut more important as a critic than as a filmmaker, and equally provocative to learn from both Dudley Andrew’s biography of André Bazin  and the fascinating, lengthy interview with Resnais in Suzanne Liandrat-Guigues and Jean-Louis Leutrat’s 2006 book Alain Resnais: Liaisons secrètes, accords vagabonds  (Cahiers du Cinéma) that Resnais originally functioned as Bazin’s mentor on film history during the German Occupation, especially on the subject of silent cinema, when he used to carry his 9.5 mm projector on his bicycle in order to show silent movies at La Maison des Lettres  on rue des Ursulines, and Bazin, still fresh from the provinces, hadn’t yet encountered silent films in general or the early films of Fritz Lang in particular.

The Love Parade window

Unlike Bazin and Truffaut, Resnais was of course never a critic. Yet his critical taste was clearly every bit as central to his own films as Truffaut’s or Godard’s critical tastes and positions were to their own oeuvres.… Read more »

Circle’s Short Circuit

From the Chicago Reader (September 17, 1999). I’ve been dying to see this film again, and reportedly it’s now possible to do so online. One can also watch a 21-second teaser at the web site of its distributor, Video Data Bank. — J.R.

CirclesShortCircuit

This 1998 Caspar Stracke feature is one of the rare experimental films in 35-millimeter, and though I could preview it only on video, it kept me fascinated even in that format. Stracke describes it as moving in a circle with neither a beginning nor an end; in the version I saw, the credits come in the middle. A lecture on the philosophical and psychoanalytic implications of the invention of the telephone by theorist Avital Ronell eventually turns into a story in black and white about a woman who has a lotus blossom growing in her left lung; at different times this film comes across as documentary, essay, performance art, and silent throwback (complete with intertitles and irises), and the capabilities and rhetoric associated with both computers and VCRs play a part in the continuously shifting and evolving discourse. Stracke will be present at the screening. Kino-Eye Cinema at Cinema Borealis, 1550 N. Milwaukee, Friday, September 17, 8:00, 773-293-1447.… Read more »

Revisiting THE GODFATHER

This was written in December 2008, after Dana Linssen, the editor-in-chief of the independent Dutch film monthly  de Filmkrant, sent out a request early that month for contributions to what she called a “Slow Criticism” dossier, to appear in their special English-language newspaper at the Rotterdam International Film Festival in late January. I revived it in 2011 as my own contribution to the avalanche of journalism that had been appearing about Pauline Kael, capped by Frank Rich’s lengthy piece in the New York Times; it’s also included in my most recent collection, Goodbye Cinema, Hello Cinephilia, where it concludes the book’s penultimate section, “Films,” just before its final section, “Criticism”. There isn’t a piece about Kael in the final section, but this broadside helps to explain why.

One aspect of  recent journalism about Kael that seems to confirm the provinciality of American film criticism in general is the tacit assumption that “the world of film” in the U.S. is somehow (and automatically) coterminous and equivalent to global film culture — unless the assumption is simply that global film culture is too esoteric and inconsequential a subject to be worthy of discussion in the U.S. But it’s worth stressing that outside the English-speaking world, Kael’s critical status was and is pretty limited.Read more »

SCARFACE

A capsule review requested by and written for MUBI’s Notebook in conjunction with an ongoing series at New York”s Film Forum. — J.R.

scarface

Scarface (Howard Hawks, 1932): A surprising amount of Howard Hawks’ unstable, weirdly graceful universe is informed by the imminence of death and the proximity of offscreen space, tied to the risks of tangling with sudden impulses. Few of his films are more aware of this encroaching void than Scarface, where X is made to mark the offscreen spot around every narrative corner. This frighteningly brutal black comedy, the least romantic of his crowd-pleasers — a much better gangster film than any of the Godfathers, especially when it comes to confronting reality — was made when people were far less deluded than they are today about the fact that their lives and destinies were being controlled by crooks. What makes it bleaker than Only Angels Have Wings and Rio Bravo is the small and indecisive role friendship is allowed to play in holding back the darkness; perhaps only Land of the Pharaohs betrays a comparable nihilistic bleakness. — Jonathan Rosenbaum

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The Taste of Ashes [SARABAND & BROKEN FLOWERS]

From the Chicago Reader (August 5, 2005). — J.R.

Saraband

** (Worth seeing)

Directed and written by Ingmar Bergman

With Liv Ullmann, Erland Josephon, Borje Ahlstedt, Julia Dufvenius, and Gunnel Fred

Broken Flowers

*** (A must see)

Directed and written by Jim Jarmusch

With Bill Murray, Julie Delpy, Jeffrey Wright, Sharon Stone, Alexis Dziena, Frances Conroy, Christopher McDonald, Chloe Svigny, Jessica Lange, Tilda Swinton, and Mark Webber

Ingmar Bergman’s Saraband and Jim Jarmusch’s Broken Flowers are two minimalist features about burned-out individuals picking over the wreckage of relationships they can barely remember and about the special art of not really giving a shit. (A third is Gus Van Sant’s Last Days, scheduled to open here next week.) With its sprawling and far from symmetrical plot, Saraband, made in 2003 for Swedish television, is stark and economical, with a small cast of characters and sparse rural settings, and it seems like an apocalyptic endgame in terms of Bergman’s own career — the end of the world as he knows it. It was shot in digital video, and at Bergman’s insistence is being projected as such — and his peculiar use of that medium is what makes this work compelling.

I wouldn’t dream of contesting Bergman’s status as a film master.… Read more »

Trends of Bill

From the Chicago Reader (March 5, 1993). –J.R.

MAD DOG AND GLORY

** (Worth seeing)

Directed by John McNaughton

Written by Richard Price

With Robert De Niro, Bill Murray, Uma Thurman, David Caruso, Mike Starr, Tom Towles, and Kathy Baker.

GROUNDHOG DAY

*** (A must-see)

Directed by Harold Ramis

Written by Danny Rubin and Ramis

With Bill Murray, Andie MacDowell, Chris Elliott, Stephen Tobolowsky, Brian Doyle-Murray, and Marita Geraghty.

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As far as the mainstream is concerned, Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro are beacons of artistic integrity and originality, while Harold Ramis and Bill Murray are at best unpretentious entertainers; screenwriter Richard Price (The Color of Money, Sea of Love) is a respected pro, and director John McNaughton (Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, The Borrower) is a promising maverick. But all of these assumptions are challenged in one way or another by the two latest Bill Murray movies. In Price and McNaughton’s Mad Dog and Glory, produced by Scorsese, artistic integrity, originality, craft, daring, and promise seem in shorter supply than in Ramis’s Groundhog Day.

I may be oversimplifying certain issues here. Groundhog Day, which boasts no interesting characters, is held in place by a narrative premise so shopworn — big-city grouch discovers small-town virtues and the error of his ways — that merely thinking about it makes me want to doze off.

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Groundhog Day

From the Chicago Reader (February 1, 1993). — J.R.

GroundhogDay

Groundhog Day movie image Bill Murray and Andie MacDowell

Bill Murray plays an obnoxious TV weatherman from Pittsburgh forced to relive the same wintry day in a small Pennsylvania town over and over again until he gets it right, in an unexpectedly graceful and well-organized comedy (1993) directed and cowritten by Harold Ramis. While the movie’s underlying message is basically A Christmas Carol strained through It’s a Wonderful Life – hardly a recommendation in my book — the filmmakers mercifully spare us the speeches and simply demonstrate their thesis; as they do they reveal their true virtue: a fluid sense of narrative that works the story’s theme-and-variations idea with a glancing and gliding touch. Considering that none of the characters is fresh or interesting, it’s a commendable achievement that the quality of the storytelling alone keeps the movie watchable and likable. With Andie MacDowell and Chris Elliott. PG, 103 min. (JR)

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Salt Of The Earth

From the Chicago Reader (February 1, 1992). — J.R.

SaltoftheEarth

This rarely screened 1954 classic is the only major American independent feature made by communists; a fictional story about the Mexican-American zinc miners in New Mexico then striking against their Anglo management, it was informed by feminist attitudes that are quite uncharacteristic of the period. The film was inspired by the blacklisting of director Herbert Biberman, screenwriter Michael Wilson (A Place in the Sun), producer and former screenwriter Paul Jarrico, and composer Sol Kaplan, among others; as Jarrico later reasoned, since they’d been drummed out of Hollywood for being subversives, they’d commit a crime to fit the punishment by making a subversive film. The results are leftist propaganda of a very high order, powerful and intelligent even when the film registers in spots as naive or dated. Basically kept out of American theaters until 1965, it was widely shown and honored in Europe, but it’s never received the recognition it deserves stateside. If you’ve never seen it, prepare to have your mind blown. 94 min. (JR)… Read more »

Ingmar Bergman Today

I’m pretty sure that this was the first submitted draft of my commissioned Op Ed piece for the New York Times, written in late July, 2007. It comes far closer to what I felt at the time than the version that emerged after three separate rewrites were requested by my editor, Mark Lotto, which was published on August 4, and which I haven’t much desire to reprint. Typically, the title that was run with the piece, “Scenes from an Overrated Career,” wasn’t mine, yet paradoxically (if understandably) this was what many readers seemed to find most objectionable.

I’m sorry that I haven’t been able to illustrate the attic scene that I describe in The Magician, so I’ve substituted a still from Sawdust and Tinsel at the head of this piece that suggests some spatial disorientation. [2015 postscript: a generous reader, Dan Roy, has helped me out with the attic scene.] –- J.R.

TheMagician-attic

TheMagician-attic2

If memory serves, my first taste of Ingmar Bergman was The Magician, seen at the 5th Avenue Cinema in the spring of 1960, en route from a New England boarding school to my home in Alabama during spring break. The key moment for me in this 19th century tale was when the title hero — the mute Vogler (Max von Sydow), one of Bergman’s many ironic self-portraits of the artist as resentful outsider — takes revenge on a skeptical patron by submitting him to a series of harsh spatial confusions in an attic.… Read more »

Sawdust And Tinsel

From the Chicago Reader (January 1, 1996). — J.R.

Sawdust&Tinsel

A major early feature by Ingmar Bergman, also known as The Naked Night (though the Swedish title apparently means The Clown’s Night). This 1953 film is perhaps the most German expressionist of Bergman’s 50s works, as redolent of sexual cruelty and angst as Variety and The Blue Angel, but no less impressive for all that. The aging owner of a small traveling circus who left his wife for a young performer in his troupe tries to regain his lost family. Visually splendid, but you may find the masochistic plot pretty unpleasant. With Ake Gronberg and Harriet Andersson. In Swedish with subtitles. 92 min. (JR)

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TV Films by Alexander Kluge

From the Chicago Reader (January 12, 1990). — J.R.

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American TV watchers, eat your hearts out! These four selections from “Ten to Eleven” — a series of short, experimental “essay” films made for German television by the remarkable German filmmaker Alexander Kluge, to be shown here on video — are not always easy to follow in terms of tracing all their connections, but they’re the liveliest and most imaginative European TV shows I’ve seen since those of Ruiz and Godard. Densely constructed out of a very diverse selection of archival materials, which are manipulated (electronically and otherwise) in a number of unexpected ways, these historical meditations often suggest Max Ernst collages using the cultural flotsam of the last 100 years. Why Are You Crying, Antonio? relates fascism, opera, and domesticity; Articles of Advertising historicizes ads in a number of novel ways; Madame Butterfly Waits offers a compressed history of opera and its kitschy successors in pop culture; and the self-explanatory The Eiffel Tower, King Kong, and the White Woman makes use of comics, movies in the 1890s, a quote from Heidegger, and multiple images of the famous ape and tower. These are apparently fairly recent works. A Chicago premiere. (Randolph St.… Read more »